Prodigy, the electronic information service developed jointly by the International Business Machines Corp. and Sears, Roebuck and Co., is getting a much-needed overhaul.
The service, which had been offered in some areas of the country, is now available nationwide, and most computer users can connect to it with a local phone call.
Two of the service's most annoying weaknesses have been addressed: Prodigy is a bit faster than it used to be, which is not sayingmuch, since most people can read faster than the old Prodigy could display text, and the graphics have been significantly improved.
A new electronic encyclopedia has been added, allowing students to do research for homework or just browse through the information.
It is too soon to tell whether the changes will entice more computer users to sign up for the service, which allows users who pay a flat fee of less than $10 a month to get the latest headlines, weather and financial news, exchange electronic mail with other Prodigy subscribers, pay bills and handle routine banking,shop by computer and search through hundreds of data bases for information on an array of topics.
A Prodigy official said the company's goal was to have 1 million users by the end of the year.
If Prodigy reaches that ambitious goal, it would become by far the largest computer-based information service in the country. Compuserve Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, is now the most popular service.
Prodigy officials are hoping to gain a significant number of subscribers courtesy of IBM, which bundles the Prodigy software and a modem with each new PS/1 computer.(The computers, in turn, are sold in Sears stores.) If the PS/1 is a success in the marketplace, Prodigy will ride its coattails.
Unlike Compuserve or other information services, Prodigy includes advertising on its display screens. We found it interesting that advertisements can be directed at specific users.
If the subscriber is a wealthy, athletic world traveler, the ads he sees will be different from those displayed for a sedentary bookworm.
Some people find advertisements objectionable, but the ads allow Prodigy to be offered at a lower cost to the user than some competing systems are: $119.40 a year, or $9.95 a month.
Competing systems often attach a per-minute connection charge, and some also charge extra for premium services such as making airline reservations.
Pricing is Prodigy's strong point. The flat fee removes the penalty and encourages exploration. Some schools we have visited are hoping to install Prodigy to link classroom computers with computers in other schools.
An exception to the pricing policy is Prodigy's electronic mail service. The first 30 messages each month are free, but extra messages are 25 cents each.
That may seem like a lot of free messages, but one message a day makes a rather meager mailbag. Serious E-mail users are protesting seriously, and many are switching to competing services.
Another area of concern is Prodigy's policy of screening electronic mail posted to public areas of the service, such as forums on a variety of topics.
Prodigy officials say they have the right and the need to edit or reject a subscriber's electronic messages because Prodigy is a family service. Private messages sent from one subscriber to another, a Prodigy spokesman said, are not screened.
Prodigy also lacks gateways that would allow mail to be exchanged with other electronic mail services, and it does not allow users to download files or append files to messages.
Not all messages are impeded, though; one irate Prodigy member reminded other members electronically that Genie, the General Electric Information Services Inc. of Rockville, Md., phone (301) 340-4000, offers unlimited and uninhibited messages for $4.95 a month and includes many features similar to Prodigy's.
For now, though, Prodigy is the only service to offer an electronic encyclopedia without special fees. It is not just for kids.
"Don't tell anyone, but I look up answers in the encyclopedia on one line while I'm playing a game of trivia on another service," said Pam Kane, a two-fisted computer expert who is writing "Prodigy Made Simple." Ms. Kane said that though the new Prodigy is faster, it is still maddeningly slow on anything less than an 80286-based personal computer with a 2,400-bit-per-second modem.
Prodigy's telephone number is (800) 776-3449, or (800) PRODIGY.